The original Shovel Knight cemented Yacht Club as a developer to pay attention to during the pixel-art 2D platformer revival we’re in the midst of. Their design philosophy has always played with and iterated on the classic genres and gameplay experiences that have been entrenched in the lexicon of videogames since the ‘80s, and Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon delivers on this legacy in spades (pun very intended).
Expertly blending pick-up-and-play arcade-style action with modern design philosophies, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon delivers Dr. Mario or Puyo Puyo with a Shovel Knight twist. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces a Yacht Club Games curve to those classics.
Going out of its way to be as goofy as possible in its setup, Pocket Dungeon sees Shovel Knight and friends transported into a dimension rife with puzzles. Fans of any “falling blocks” puzzle game will recognize the premise. Nearly every enemy from Shovel Knight’s rogues’ gallery makes an appearance here as different blocks for you to break.
Dispatch them quickly alone or together in a chain to build a bonus score meter. The challenge comes from timing when to strike, when to move and when to heal, with each action causing the falling enemies to move. You can stay in rhythm with the music or just mash. That’s not to say you won’t need to think about your actions, though: over-commit and you’ll get a game over, play it safe and you won’t get a good score.
While the game does take care to uphold the tone of its source material in its story, there’s nothing particularly new or standout for anyone beyond the most zealous Shovel Knight devotees.
In its main adventure mode, you start out as Shovel Knight progressing through puzzles themed after levels from the original game, complete with expertly remixed versions of all of their themes. I can’t tell you how many times I restarted a run just to hear Pocket Dungeon’s rendition of ‘Strike the Earth’ one more time.
Being able to do that thanks to Pocket Dungeon’s relatively low stakes was one of my favorite parts of the game. While its structure sends players back to the very beginning of the 10-level adventure mode if they die, the game allows players to restart with almost no penalty. On top of the fact that players can pay a small amount of in-game currency to effectively start where they left off, they can also choose how many lives they get in any given run.
Removing as many restrictions as possible feels more like playing a really good match-three mobile game with every microtransaction paid for than it does like playing a game that’s too easy. It understands that a good arcade puzzler shines in its systems and gameplay, rather than getting to the end. Allowing a run to be flexible might deflate some tense moments for more thrill-seeking difficulty fanatics if they choose to make the game easier on themselves, but the game never forces you to play one specific way. This also allows for a lot of experimentation within the game’s somewhat small scope, giving it a much bigger feel.
Pocket Dungeon doubles down on this player freedom by including a number of playable characters beyond just Shovel Knight. Each character adds their own layer or mechanic to the basic action. It’s disappointing that unlocking each one effectively renders Shovel Knight more and more obsolete and that some characters clearly had more love put into them than others, but characters like Plague Knight or Shield Knight add enough new depth to the gameplay that playing towards their abilities is like a game within a game.
Instead of making it a challenge just to complete a run, each level in Pocket Dungeon provides a unique challenge that expects the player to have a mastery of any given level’s mechanics. Where one level might have a conveyor belt that constantly moves around your enemies, preventing you from landing the finishing blow to a satisfying chain, another might have a large eel creeping to the bottom of the stage, blocking you off from a health potion you desperately need to complete the level.
All this points to the tact with which Yacht Club reinvigorates classic experiences, layering both depth and replay value over an enthralling gameplay loop. To top it all off, Yacht Club’s outdone themselves with the game’s presentation. The slightly squished, round character designs add a distinct charm. Even if you’re tired of games that utilize sprites, it’d be hard not to appreciate how much love went into its art.
Another source of replay value comes from the game’s multiplayer. The additional mode sees players sending enemies and other obstacles to their opponent’s board with each successful chain as their choice of character. It doesn’t do anything beyond what the game’s adventure mode does, but it doesn’t have to. It’s simple enough to pick up and play that it’s a good game to pull out with more casual players at a holiday gathering or a bar for a quick match with a friend.
Pocket Dungeon is a relatively small experience, but it spells good fortune for the future of Shovel Knight. In drawing from another hallowed genre in the deep well of classic games from a bygone era, Yacht Club Games have proven that their work and their most iconic character transcends genre. Not only am I even more excited for Shovel Knight Dig than I was before, I’m also excited to see what genre Yacht Club deems worthy of the blue knight next.
Pocket Dungeon understands puzzle spinoffs in the same way that the original Shovel Knight and all of its DLC understands classic platformers from the NES. While its title is fittingly suggestive of just how small the whole game is, I have a feeling I’ll be coming back for months until I move on to my next roguelike obsession.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was developed by Yacht Club Games and Vine and published by Yacht Club Games. Our review is based on the Switch version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4, PC, and Mac.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.